Some things are near-guarantees as we enter the final stretch of the regular season. Giannis Antetokounmpo will secure his second MVP, the Lakers will hold onto the top spot in the West, and the Knicks will suffer at least one public relations disaster. The first week of April could be largely drama free, with stealth tanking and not-so-secret load management taking center stage. But don’t expect the final sprint to be completely devoid of drama.
The Western Conference should see consistent jostling for the No. 2 through No. 6 seeds, and we’ll see a similar pile-up in the East. Will the 76ers continue to disappoint? Will the Rockets’ small-ball experiment work? With less than two months remaining, we at The Crossover decided to stake our claim with 10 bold predictions for the stretch run.
1. The Bucks Fall One Win Shy of the Warriors
Milwaukee is currently on a 70-win pace as we exit the All-Star break, and it hasn’t exactly been a grueling first half for the NBA’s top team. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging just over 30 minutes per game, and 13 Bucks are averaging at least 13 minutes per game. Mike Budenholzer doesn’t have to lean on his stars. Milwaukee has been cruise control for much of the season.
Can the Bucks match the Warriors’ 73-win season? I remain skeptical. Milwaukee has the fifth-hardest schedule remaining, and it could give Giannis games off in the final weeks. Still, Milwaukee is deep enough and talented enough to make a serious run at Golden State, especially as they run rampant through the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee may fall short of the all-time record, but they’ll likely come quite close before the postseason begins.
2. Houston Seizes the No. 2 Seed
The Rockets’ downsizing experiment may cost them in the postseason, but it should pay significant dividends through the season’s second half. Russell Westbrook is playing some of the best basketball of his career without a center clogging the game, and James Harden is bound to find his three-point stroke sooner than later. Houston has minimized its shortcomings on the glass, and it’s wreaking havoc in passing lanes after adding Robert Covington. The Rockets are 3.5 games back of Denver for the No. 2 seed. They have the seventh-easiest schedule through the rest of 2019-20. Don’t be surprised if Houston holds home court in multiple playoff series.
3. The Pelicans Make the Playoffs
Speaking of light schedules, no team has an easier road ahead than the Pelicans. New Orleans entered the All-Star break with six wins in its last 10 games, and Zion Williamson has quickly proven to be the real deal. With their team finally healthy, is a playoff berth on the horizon?
New Orleans is still 6.5 games back of Memphis, though the Grizzlies coincidentally have the NBA’s hardest remaining schedule. And the Pelicans have been near-dominant since Williamson entered the lineup on Jan. 22. They rank No. 7 in net rating and No. 5 in effective field goal percentage, and only the Warriors boast a better assist percentage. An uphill climb awaits, but New Orleans has the talent to make a run for the No. 8 seed.
4. Ben Simmons Hits Multiple Threes in a Game
Philadelphia’s point guard has made just two three pointers this season. He’s attempted just six triples in 2019-20, and he hasn’t attempted more than one in a single game. So why will Simmons can multiple threes in a game? Perhaps some good-old-fashioned pressure will do the trick. Simmons’ stroke isn’t completely broken, and as the postseason approaches, perhaps he’ll be more inclined to work on his corner three. Simmons is a stubborn sort, and the public mockery has yet to force his hand. Yet with the postseason approaching, perhaps Brett Brown can finally get through to his mercurial point guard.
5. James Harden Sets the Non-Wilt Scoring Record
It’s a testament to Harden’s dominance that he’s averaging 29 points per game in his 15-game “slump.” The two-time scoring champion is shooting just 39.3% from the field since Jan. 11, looking fatigued in spurts as Westbrook unleashed an MVP-caliber stretch. We should see a better Harden in the season’s final stretch as he exits All-Star weekend at 35.3 PPG.
Harden was on a historic tear for much of 2019-20, averaging 39.3 points per game in his first 25 contests of the season. The Beard banged home step-backs with ease, and he was going to the free throw line nearly 14 times per game. A slate of traps dampened his scoring to a degree, though the defensive scheme’s frequency has dipped of late as Westbrook destroys teams on drives to the rim. Expect Harden to start cooking again if he consistently faces single coverage. Passing Michael Jordan’s non-Wilt scoring record of 37.1 points per game is still certainly in play.
6. Khris Middleton Joins the 50-40-90 Club
There are a slate of candidates who could potentially enter the 50-40-90 club this season (hello, Duncan Robinson) but the best bet is Bucks forward Khris Middleton. The Texas A&M product is currently in the club by just a hair in field-goal and free-throw percentage, though crossing the threshold in both categories is certainly plausible. Middleton isn’t shooting over his head. He’s finished at 88% or better from the free-throw line three times. Giannis’ gravity is unmatched. Middleton receives more open shots than any second fiddle in the league. Given his comfortable situation, a 50-40-90 season can certainly be in store.
7. Minnesota Finishes Last in the Western Conference
Perhaps the Towns-Russell pairing will lead a competitive team 2020-21, but the early results haven’t been encouraging. Minnesota remains a defensive disaster, and as the Timberwolves’ playoff hopes dwindle, their effort might as well. Minnesota faces the seventh-hardest schedule the rest of the way. Steph Curry should return to the Warriors by early March. A disappointing end to the year in Minnesota could end with Towns and Co. in the Western Conference cellar.
8. Jayson Tatum Averages 25 Points Per Game
Jayson Tatum continues to emerge as a legitimate top option, capping the season’s first half with a dominant 39-point effort against Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers on Feb. 13. The performance marked the end of a career-best stretch from Tatum in which he averaged 26.7 points per game while making 44.9% of threes in the process. Tatum’s shot chart continues to improve. He’s attacking the rim with a fearlessness we didn’t see last season, and his step-back is one of the silkiest in the NBA. Tatum is clearly the Celtics’ most valuable asset (no disrespect to Jaylen Brown). Expect his ascent to continue through the rest of the regular season.
9. New York Finishes With the East’s Worst Record
Knicks gonna Knicks. New York currently sits No. 13 in the East as we exit the All-Star break, but it’s unlikely to hold its spot for long. The Hawks continue to play hard with Trae Young, and they’ve looked more respectable with John Collins back in the lineup. Atlanta will almost certainly pass New York if Clint Capela returns from his right heel contusion. The Cavaliers nearly match the Knicks in dysfunction, though a potential John Beilen departure could provide a serious morale boost. Besides, a little late-season tanking never hurt. New York should finish the year in the pole position for the top pick in the draft.
10. The Luke Walton Era Ends in Sacramento
The Kings’ dysfunction is the only constant in Sacramento, well, aside from seasons outside the playoffs. It’s hard to assess Luke Walton’s culpability in his first campaign with the Kings, but he’s far from a sure thing to return next season. Vivek Ranadive’s frustration appears to be growing. The Specter of Luka Doncic looms over the Golden 1 Center. The Kings could very well have their seventh coach since 2010 by the start of De’Aaron Fox’s fourth season.